Playground for the rich: Tomson Golf Club in Shanghai. Photo: Alessandro Rizzi/Luz/Eyevine
Show Hide image

The Chinese golf courses that don’t officially exist

The Forbidden Game uses golf – a game that most in the country probably still know nothing about – to gain a rare insight into ordinary Chinese lives. 

The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream
Dan Washburn
Oneworld, 316pp, £12.99


Zhou Xunshu grows up in a very poor village in China, tending the family oxen. Without knowing anything about the sport, he becomes a security guard at a posh golf course. He falls for the game. Training secretly, he turns himself into a golf pro and coach. He buys a flat in Chongqing, a city that grows by the day. Then he returns to the village to persuade his aged peasant parents to come and live with him.

The parents aren’t keen to move. Over food, tobacco and corn wine, they argue the matter into the night. “The conversation droned on,” writes the American journalist Dan Washburn in one of the best passages of his book on golf in China. These were “different versions of the same arguments that had been made hundreds of times before” – or more accurately, taking a pan-China view, millions of times.

At 2am, the father finally agrees to move. The next day, writes Washburn, the parents “stuffed their most important belongings into plastic rice sacks and cardboard fruit boxes. They didn’t pack photos or family heirlooms – they had none of these. They packed sugar, preserved pork, heads of garlic . . .” (Washburn is a little too fond of detail.) The next thing they know, they are sitting on Zhou’s sofa in Chongqing, watching TV.

The Forbidden Game uses golf – a game that most in the country probably still know nothing about – to gain a rare insight into ordinary Chinese lives. Washburn, the managing editor of the Asia Society in the US, was a reporter in China when he began covering golf tournaments. A Stakhanovite worker, he spent years trekking to the least glamorous corners of the country and has ended up with interlinked portraits of three men touched by the rise of golf in China.

One is Zhou, the journeyman pro. The second is Martin Moore, an American builder of golf courses who ended up in China because that’s where courses were getting built. And the third is Wang Libo, “a lychee farmer on China’s tropical Hainan Island”, whose life changed after a developer chose Wang’s village as the site of the world’s largest golf complex.

Golf proves an excellent lens through which to view contemporary China. That’s partly because, in a very Chinese way, the boom in golf course construction was illegal and officially never happened. The courses eat up farmland and are stages for ostentatious displays of wealth, often by government officials. The sport conveys wealth and ease in China in a way that it doesn’t any more in the west. That is why many new Chinese rich are keen to live on golf resorts.

Indeed, most golf courses in the country are built chiefly in order to sell luxury homes. Washburn quotes a billboard for golf villas with the slogan “Leading the dance of business philosophy, one villa can conquer the world”. (Professionally, golf remains a minor sport but some young Chinese golfers, often from rich backgrounds, are attracting international notice – especially Guan Tianlang, who at last year’s US Masters, aged 14, became the youngest player to make the cut in a major championship.)

The rich man’s game is embarrassing to the Communist Party, especially when played by officials with “golf tans”, and so Beijing issues periodic edicts against the building of new courses. These edicts rarely affect what happens on the ground. Washburn quotes a typically excellent Chinese proverb: “The mountain is high and the emperor is far away.” Local officials like selling land for golf courses because they personally pocket much of the proceeds. Washburn explains that, in a residue of communism, “The government owns all land in China; villagers just lease it.” Those who lose their land typically get fobbed off with small sums.

Golf is just one of the forces driving them off their land. Many peasants are understandably upset. “Of the 187,000 mass demonstrations reported in China in 2010,” Washburn writes, “65 per cent were related to disputes over land.” One American golf-course worker describes a typical protest: “They always come out with their machetes. There’ll be 30 little women and they’ll all start screaming Hainanese and shaking their machetes and yelling at you.” Generally, the bulldozers win.

The conflicts are particularly acute in Hainan, which Beijing hopes to convert into a Hawaiian-style tourist paradise with lots of golf. A course developer offers villagers payouts for their ancient houses. Wang Libo takes the money. He opens a little shop to feed the labourers who have come to staff the new complex. The shop thrives. Soon, he opens a restaurant. Like the golfer Zhou, Wang gains a shaky foothold in China’s middle classes – a slice of the “Chinese dream”.

In probably no other country have ordinary people’s lives changed so much in the past 30 years. Here, the difference between a person’s childhood and adulthood is often almost unfathomable. It is hard to feel nostalgia for the country the Chinese have left behind. Zhou’s father-in-law recalls how, as a child in Mao’s China, he was sometimes “so constipated from not eating enough fibre that his father had to use a finger to dig the faeces out of him”. No wonder that “Ni chi fan le ma?” – which translates as “Have you eaten?” – remains a common greeting in China.

But inevitably, with all the changes, much has been lost. The environment is being destroyed. For the Hainan golf complex, the developers cut down a mountain and turned it into a lake. In Wang’s village, those who accepted compensation for their homes and those who didn’t stop talking to each other. In almost too perfect a closing set piece, Wang sits under the phoenix tree where villagers used to gather every evening and muses: “I had thought that the volleyball matches would continue no matter what development came here. I never thought things like chess or even just nighttime chatting between villagers would disappear so quickly. And I think in the near future all of the old stone houses will be replaced.” Zhou’s parents are even less fond of progress: after just a fortnight in Chongqing, they flee back to their village.

This book is probably worth the years Washburn put into it and the nights he spent sharing cheap hotel rooms with Zhou on China’s golf tour. You just wish he were a more natural stylist and storyteller. He knows that a book needs characters so he has tracked them like a stalker and he diligently slathers on the colour. No detail is omitted: “It was brutally hot – reaching 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius), with 82 per cent humidity – and Zhou slogged his way through the front nine. He was two over at the turn . . .” American writers tend to over-research; the British do the opposite.

Washburn’s stories meander. But they lead, eventually, to an illuminating portrait of modern China.

Simon Kuper’s books include “Soccernomics” (HarperSport, £8.99), co-written with Stefan Szymanski

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

Rex Features
Show Hide image

Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage